The government of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has signed deals for the purchase of jet airliners and the construction of military helicopters

After signing an eye-popping deal for 470 Boeing and Airbus jets, India will also start building helicopters by the hundreds – some with a bit of help from its new military suitor France.

The announcement at the opening of India’s largest helicopter facility was as staggering as the 14 February promise by Air India to buy 470 aircraft worth 66 billion euros from Boeing and Airbus.

At the chopper plant, India’s state-run Hindustan Aeronautical Ltd (HAL) said it would initially build locally designed light utility helicopters and then expand to make a variety of other rotorcraft.

A Thousand Choppers

The plant aims to top annual production of 1,000 units by 2043, HAL said and added the venture would rake in billions of euros in 20 years.

HAL and the French military firm Safran struck a deal last month to build engines for a 13-ton medium role helicopter which will replace India’s ageing fleet of Mi-17 military helicopters by 2027.

HAL expects 400 units will be sold largely as a replacement for the ageing Mi-17, Codenamed “Hip” by NATO which have flown thousands of combat sorties for India.

“The 13-ton project makes it all the more exciting because with this class the plant could become a one-stop destination for helicopter shoppers,” one HAL official commented.

The Indian army has sought 100 units, air force 200 and the navy wants 15 of Russian Mi-17’s new avatar, which can carry 36 fully armed soldiers and travel 800 kilometres with a full cargo load of four tons, HAL officials told RFI.

"We will participate in the design development and production of some of the engine’s core components, a significant accomplishment in terms of expertise and know-how in India,” HAL said in a statement.

The pact also saw Safran’s expanding footstep in India, where it has developed an engine for a local light combat helicopter and is in a race to power up India’s Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft, a stealth fighter jet.

The government’s Aeronautical Development Agency, piloting the secretive stealth program, said it was awaiting the go-ahead for the project, launched in 2009.

“The design was ready by 2015 itself and now we are ready with all the materials of stealth technologies,” Agency director-general Girish Deodhare told journalists.

Experts say the twin-engine jet is likely to roll out next year with deliveries beginning six years later.

India, which proposes to spend 68.4 billion euros on its million-plus military this year, is also trying to develop modern artillery guns and a nuclear submarine.

In 1983, India kicked off plans to locally build a light combat aircraft but the first flight could take off only in 2001 with scientists blaming poor technology and shortages of materials for the 18-year delay.

Air India Gambit

Safran’s 15 February helicopter deal also came a day after Air India said it would buy 220 planes from Boeing and 250 from Airbus in the largest civil aviation contract signed.

The announcement startled government leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron who hailed the gambit an “achievement” that would strengthen ties between Paris and Delhi.

US President Joe Biden called up Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Delhi for the passage of the deal which will help Air India monetise India's growing base of fliers and large diaspora across the world.

Delhi insists Modi’s make-in-India program will ultimately reduce costly imports and boost jobs as well as upgrade air travel and bolster national defence.

India’s military is dependent on imports with Russia, France, the United States, Britain and Israel vying to become its top hardware supplier.

“There is no doubt in our mind that we must end our dependence on foreign products,” air force chief Vivek Ram Chaudhari said ahead of the delivery of six of 45 Apache attack helicopters to India by the US military in February 2024.

Indian military sources say HAL plans to manufacture a medium-weight Apache category combat helicopter.

India in recent months held a string of war manoeuvres with Australia, Japan and the US following concerns over China’s move to amass troops along the contested Himalayan border.